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Historia Augusta


Bust of Hadrian from Italica. Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla (Spain). Photo Jan van Vliet.
Hadrian (Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla)
Historia Augusta: modern name of a collection of (bogus) biographies of Roman emperors of the second and third centuries.

The collection of biographies of Roman emperors called Historia Augusta consists of the lives of most rulers from Hadrian (117-138) to Carinus (283-285). They can be divided into two groups:

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Bust of Marcus Aurelius. British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Marcus Aurelius
(British Museum, London)
Hadrian Aelius Spartianus
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English
Lucius Aelius Aelius Spartianus
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Antoninus Pius Julius Capitolinus
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Marcus Aurelius Julius Capitolinus
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Lucius Verus Julius Capitolinus
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Avidius Cassius Vulcacius Gallicanus
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Commodus Aelius Lampridius
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Pertinax Julius Capitolinus
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Didius Julianus Julius Capitolinus
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Septimius Severus Aelius Spartianus
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Pescennius Niger Aelius Spartianus
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Clodius Albinus Julius Capitolinus
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Caracalla Aelius Spartianus
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Geta Aelius Spartianus
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Macrinus Julius Capitolinus
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Diadumenianus Aelius Lampridius
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Heliogabalus Aelius Lampridius
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Severus Alexander Aelius Lampridius
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Maximinus Thrax Julius Capitolinus
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Gordian I, II, III Julius Capitolinus
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Pupienus and Balbinus Julius Capitolinus
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lacuna
lacuna


Valerian Trebellius Pollio
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Gallienus Trebellius Pollio
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Thirty tyrants Trebellius Pollio
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Claudius II Gothicus Trebellius Pollio
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Aurelian Flavius Vopiscus
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Tacitus Flavius Vopiscus
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Probus Flavius Vopiscus
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Four tyrants Flavius Vopiscus
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Carus, Carinus, Numerianus Flavius Vopiscus
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At first sight, it looks as if during the reign of Constantine the Great, Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus continued a project that had been started during the reign of Diocletian by Spartianus, Capitolinus, Lampridius, and Gallicanus.

The biographies of the emperors between 244 and 253 (Philippus Arabs, Decius, Trebonianus Gallus, Aemilianus) are missing, which is a pity, because here, we would have expected some sort of introduction to the second half of the Historia Augusta.

 
Bust of Septimius Severus. Archaeological Museum, Thessaloniki (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
Septimius Severus (Archaeological Museum, Thessaloniki)

The fact that there seem to be two groups is interesting, because the four first authors lived during the reign of Diocletian, who persecuted the Christians, whereas Pollio and Vopiscus lived during the reign of the first Christian ruler of the Roman empire. Now the work appears to be written by people who shared a common outlook on the past, and agreed to the values of the pagan senatorial aristocracy of Rome. We would love to know whether the two teams knew each other, or whether the second team was working for or against Constantine.

Unfortunately, the prologue to the first part of the work is also missing. Here, the first four authors must have explained something about the aim of their project. It is also sad that the lives of Nerva and Trajan are lost; had they been there, we would have had some sort of bridge between the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and the Historia Augusta.


Caracalla. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Caracalla (Altes Museum, Berlin)

So we are left with a collection of imperial biographies that is damaged at precisely the two points where its authors might have explained what they were doing. Yet, probably the two lacunas are not coincidental at all, because the Historia Augusta is something like an ancient mockumentary.

As long ago as 1889, it has been suggested that the work was composed by one single author. (This idea was proposed by  the great German Altertumswissenschaftler Hermann Dessau in a classic essay "Über Zeit und Persönlichkeit der Scriptor Historiae Augustae", in the journal Hermes.) A more recent stylistic analysis using computer techniques has confirmed this hypothesis beyond reasonable doubt. But the six fake authors and the fake division into an earlier and a later phase of composition, are only the beginning of a lovely game of hide and seek.


Bust of Carinus. Centrale Montemartini, Rome (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Carinus (Centrale Montemartini, Roma)

One of the most charming aspects is the introduction of fake information, especially in the second half. At least one ruler has been invented, remarkable omens are introduced, and anecdotes are added. The information in the second half of the life of the decadent emperor Heliogabalus is very entertaining, but completely untrue, and only introduced as a contrast to the biography of his successor Severus Alexander, who is presented as the ideal ruler. Ancient readers must have loved these mirror images, and may have smiled when the author of the Life of Heliogabalus accused other authors of making up charges to discredit the emperor, and used them all the same.

The "minor" biographies (i.e. the lives of co-rulers and usurpers) are usually entirely invented. Of course this means that the Historia Augusta is not reliable as a source for these lives, but it is a very valuable source for those who want to reconstruct the values and ideas of the the senatorial elite of ancient Rome. The pagan senators were obviously credulous people, who preferred a vie romancée and were not interested in real biography. They liked novels and fiction, not history and facts. This literary taste is older than the Historia Augusta: the first example from the Roman world is the vie romancée of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus, which is in turn inspired by the Education of Cyrus by Xenophon.


Bust of Diocletian. Arkeoloji Müzesi, İstanbul (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of Diocletian (Arkeoloji Müzesi, İstanbul)

Another aspect of the game is the fake date. It can be shown that the Life of Septimius Severus was written after another series of imperial biographies (either the Caesares by Aurelius Victor or the Enmannsche Kaisergeschichte), which continued to about 360/361. There are also several anachronisms and tacit references to people who lived in the fourth century and events that took place after the reign of Constantine. 

It can certainly not be excluded that the Historia Augusta was in fact composed during the reign of Julianus Apostata (361-363), who briefly attempted to revive paganism. The text may have been part of an attempt to deduce from the splendor of Roman history that the pagan traditionalists were right, and Christianity was, from an historical point of view, an unRoman activity. 


Bust of Julian, from Athens. National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Julian, from Athens (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

However, this interpretation is not without serious complications, and dates of publication during the reigns of Theodosius I (379-395) and Honorius (395-423) have been proposed as well. What is certain, is that it was composed before 425, because the Roman author Symmachus has used the Historia Augusta.

Among the many games that are played in the Historia Augusta is the invention of no less than 130 fake documents, most charmingly introduced in the introduction of the Life of Aurelian. Fake sources were not a new practice (cf. the invented letters in Plutarch's Life of Alexander). What is new, however, is that the author the Historia Augusta invents sources to disagree with them. This is, to the best knowledge of the author of this article, unique in ancient literature; the only possible (but unlikely) exception is, again, the source "Damis" that is used by Philostratus in his vie romancée of Apollonius of Tyana.


Coin of Theodosius I the Great. Valkhofmuseum, Nijmegen (Netherlands). Photo Marco Prins.
Theodosius I the Great (Valkhofmuseum, Nijmegen)

All this does not mean that the work is, for a historian, entirely worthless. It can be shown that the "major biographies", i.e. the lives of the officially recognized emperors until Heliogabalus, are based on a collection of biographies written by an important senator named Marius Maximus, who is known to have finished a more or less reliable continuation of Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Emperors. Information from Herodian, who wrote a History of the Roman Empire covering the years 180-238, is also included, and several other sources may have been used to (Cassius Dio, Dexippus, Eunapius, and the Enmannsche Kaisergeschichte).

The name Historia Augusta, which means something like "august history" and "history of the emperors", was coined in 1603 by the famous scholar Isaac Casaubon.





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